Bonsai, by Alejandro Zambra
The first lie Julio told Emilia was that he had read Marcel Proust. He didn't usually lie about reading, but that second night, when they both knew they were starting something, and that that something, however long it lasted, was going to be important, that night Julio made his voice resonant and feigned intimacy, and said that, yes, he had read Proust, at the age of seventeen, one summer, in Quintero. At that time no one spent their summers in Quintero anymore, not even Julio's parents, who had met on the beach at El Durazno, who went to Quintero, a pretty beach town now invaded by slum dwellers, where Julio, at seventeen, got his hands on his grandparents' house and locked himself up to read In Search of Lost Time. It was a lie, of course: he had gone to Quintero that summer, and he had read a lot, but he had read Jack Kerouac, Heinrich Böll, Vladimir Nabokov, Truman Capote, and Enrique Lihn, but not Marcel Proust.There is a sense in which Emilia's claim is true: the five fabricated months she spent reading Proust are, at least at this moment, the most important months of her life as a reader. There is not, as we may prefer to think, as strong a division between what we have read and what we only pretend to have read (or plan to read) in the constitution of our "lives as readers." This phrase, "my life as a reader," expresses as much an aspiration as accomplishment, for our "lives as readers" are perhaps the most determinedly narrativized aspect of our lives generally, and a narrative at least implies, even if it doesn't explore, a future. And narratives generally take in past possibilities that were not fulfilled, not just the paths we did end up taking.
That same night Emilia lied to Julio for the first time, and the lie was, also, that she had read Marcel Proust. At first she only went so far as to agree: I also read Proust. But after that there was a long period of silence, which was not so much an uncomfortable silence as an expectant one, such that Emilia had to complete the story: It was last year, recently, it took me five months, I was so busy, you know how it is, with the courseload at the university. But I undertook to read the seven volumes and the truth is that those were the most important months of my life as a reader.
She used that phrase: my life as a reader, she said that those had been, without a doubt, the most important months of her life as a reader.
I think it is largely this strength—the strength of the possibilities derived from the narrative of "my life as a reader"—that underwrites the Bolaño myth or the mini-surge of interest in Latin American literature over the past five years or so (of which the English translation of Bonsai is certainly a product). Bolaño's characters, like Julio and Emilia, have vivid "lives as readers," and even if this takes them into imaginary life experiences, there is a robustness to these lives that exceeds the possibilities for making a narrative out of a non-reading life: there is a sense that the books one has yet to read solidify the openness and even the very existence of the future, and there is a sense that the past is not closed off to modification. One can at the very least make a narrative out of how one wishes one had read a book, and that wish embeds itself in one's past and alters it, gives it a more pleasant weight or timbre. On a macro-level, this is the achievement of Nazi Literature in the Americas: the past and the future are mutable, given that we can always find new books to read from either, and when we can't, we can invent them.
You can read about the plot and reception of Bonsai in either of these two excellent reviews (from The Quarterly Conversation and from The Nation), but I'd like to pick up one point from the latter. The Nation review argues that Zambra is "in no way Bolano's heir," and this is correct, but I am not sure that Zambra's relative disregard for Bolaño and for the tradition which Bolaño placed himself in does not in some way carve out a negative space in which Bonsai nestles nicely. Politics is completely absent in Bonsai, as it cannot be in Bolaño, but in its treatment of the "life as a reader" theme, it offers a strong statement on the utopian thinking that I am arguing is the basis of that theme. Julio and Emilia's imaginary lives as readers turn out to be very thin nails from which to hang the weight of a durable romance, and this failure—and the particular tones and effects that come from it—is much thicker a rejection of reading-as-utopia than the light, placid irony of the passage above.
At any rate, on these and other themes of Literature-and-Life, Zambra's explorations strikes with all the irons at their hottest; it's no wonder it's became a sort of succès de scandale in Chile and elsewhere. And very deservedly so: it is a fantastic little book (just 83 pages—barely enough time to start feeling uncomfortable sitting in a coffee shop), but because of its (physical) size, I feel bad counting it as my book for Chile in the challenge I set for myself. I think I will also be reading How I Became a Nun, by César Aira (and perhaps Zambra's other novel, which has yet to be translated); altogether, they perhaps cover the length of one short novel. But I highly recommend everyone seeking Bonsai out; it was certainly one of the most enjoyable hour-plus reads in my life as a reader.